Of the movies I’ve written about so far, the most similar in style to The Royal Tenenbaums is Igby Goes Down. They’re both comedies with serious elements, populated by oddball characters. They both feature sharp dialogue, subtly humorous in a way more likely to appeal to indie film aficionados than to the masses.
I’d say I liked The Royal Tenenbaums a little better.
To its credit, Igby Goes Down maybe is a little more emotionally intense at its best points when it gets serious. (The Royal Tenenbaums is a little different style. Its serious points tend to be byproducts of the humorous characters and situations, or at least to flow more smoothly from them. It never shifts jarringly—in a clumsy or effective way—from comedy to drama.) But Igby Goes Down has just about all unlikable characters, whereas The Royal Tenenbaums is more of a mixture. The daughter, for instance, is dour and depressing in an arrogant, unpleasant way (intentionally so—that’s the nature of her character), and one or two of the other main characters are fairly dull to me, but most of the people in the movie are at least somewhat likable, interesting people. And I’d say there are even more funny little moments in the dialogue. Not so much that’s memorable or quotable in its specifics, but more just a matter of having the right, funny feel to it—maybe an awkwardness, or a talking past each other, or a socially unexpected frankness or whatever. Just plenty of little moments that earned a chuckle from me.
But really what puts The Royal Tenenbaums at a slightly higher level is that it has Gene Hackman in a terrific role at its center.
Hackman plays Royal Tenenbaum himself, the patriarch of a wealthy family, full of eccentrics. He wanders off early on in his fatherhood—and was almost as absent a parent when he was there—leaving a wife and three kids. The kids are all precocious and successful early (to a degree exaggerated for comic effect), and troubled as adults. (Think Glass family from the Salinger short stories.)
After a long gimmicky introduction heavy on narration to set the scene (helpful for understanding the movie, funny in places, but ultimately a little overdone), the bulk of the movie is about Royal’s return to his family, where he receives, at best, a mixed reception.
Hackman is the funniest character in the movie, and he’s the most interesting and in his own way admirable character when it comes to the movie’s more serious side. He’s the kind of lovable rogue who doesn’t really deny his bad points, but does his best to make amends and use his good points to improve the lives of the people he cares about and improve his relationships with them.
The movie has a noticeably different feel when he’s on screen. Without him, there’s some amusing offbeat dialogue here, and a kind of funny offbeat situation there, but mostly not enough to grab me. But then it comes alive in his scenes. He consistently says or does something funny—often some self-deprecating admission concerning his tendency to take morally dubious shortcuts—or drops in a line that shows some genuine caring for another person and provides a glimpse that he’s a big-hearted guy and he’s doing his best, even when his best isn’t that great.
I like the fact that the movie doesn’t go too far in selling his redemption. For instance, yes, while he’s back with his family he discovers he really does want to connect with them, really does regret the way his failings adversely affected them in the past, really does love them, but at the same time, his primary motive for returning in the first place was that he was broke and had nowhere else to turn. And he’s allowed back into the family home only because he comes up with a ludicrous lie about having cancer and having only a few weeks to live. So it’s not like they make him out to be an angel.
I also appreciate the fact that his family doesn’t rush to embrace him. It’s a lot easier to say from a distance, “Oh what the heck, forgive him. He’s doing all he knows how to do, and he’s a good guy in his own way, with an infectious zest for life. Give him a break.” But when we’re talking about a guy who was a really irresponsible, dishonest, toxic husband and father—in however “funny” a way—it’s going to take a little more than showing up after all these years and saying all the right things to earn that.
By the way, I also really like the little Hindu guy who serves as his sidekick for part of the movie. He doesn’t even say much, but he’s just one of those characters who’s inherently funny whenever he’s on screen.
In some ways The Royal Tenenbaums is a little too self-consciously clever and cutesy for me, but Hackman won me over. It’s worth seeing to get to know that character, so I’ll give it at least a mild recommendation.